by Vivien Goldman.
The title of the newly released 1998 Bush Tetras album that was thought to be lost forever, brashly says it all: Happy.
Anyone who knows the laconic nature of the Bush Tetras will realize they’re being both sardonic and defiant. It’s an attitude of ambiguity that fits with the louche counter-cultural sophistication of a band that is eternally emblematic of the early 1980s. New York’s counter-culture was infiltrating the world from the blocks below 14th St. when singer/writer Cynthia Sley, guitarist Pat Place and her old friend, bass-player Laura Kennedy, combined with a more experienced, dynamite drummer called Dee Pop to blast off as the Bush Tetras.
Says Dee, “Back then the people you hooked up with were misfits, who’d been the different ones at school. That was the original punk rock crowd.”
Those feelings still rang true when the rare and legendary Happy, was first recorded with producer Don Fleming in 1998.
Its appearance is exciting, mysterious – and maybe no surprise. Because in a trajectory like the Bush Tetras’, which is as jagged as one of their own solos, the unexpected is normal. And the return of Happy the missing piece of their jigsaw puzzle, is also a pointer to the leaps that are made when the Bush Tetras and then new bassist, Julia Murphy who took over from Laura Kennedy at the time, are seized by a restless creativity that only they share.
Says Dee Pop, “We are like a family. You go your own way for a while, then you get back together because you really miss each other.”
And anyway, they can’t stop. The Bush Tetras are like veteran post-punk prizefighters. The band’s cheeky, disdainful taunt, “Too Many Creeps” from their first incarnation, made them the queens of the LES No Wave scene in the early 1980s; but since their first implosion in 1983, their fans have kept calling them back into the showbiz ring.
Happy’s return from the void is a true Bush Tetras Second Coming, for those to whom it has always been a legend, the one that got away.
There have been four main active cycles of the Bush Tetras. The initial 1978-9 group of Dee Pop, Pat Place and Laura Kennedy, was sometimes joined by guitar player Jimmy Joe Uliana and singer Adele Bertei, who had been in the punk jazz Contortions with Pat. She performed on the Bush Tetras’ first ever gig in 1979 at New York’s avant-garde spot, The Kitchen. But by 1980, Adele was gone and Cynthia Sley completed what came to be the classic line-up.
Happy belongs to the group’s third surge. Arguably encouraged by the rise of Riot Grllzzzzz, the Bush Tetras found themselves out on the road once more in the mid-1990s and signed a deal with a label from Portland, Oregon for two albums.
The first was Beauty Lies in 1995. Produced by Afro-punk avatar Nona Hendryx, who used to go see the band perform downtown, it represented the smoothest ever Bush Tetras sound, and brought out the faint hint of blues in their mutant funk.
Having been coaxed to a new level by Nona, the band now sought to bridge her rigor and their usual freedom, wondering what they might find in the middle.
Happy was born at a recording studio on Murray Street in then pre-gentrified Tribeca. “It was quite a hub, a really interesting scene,” Cynthia remembers. “Artists like Henry Rollins and Chris Whitley were recording there.” For periods of down time, Don Fleming played a VHS tape of out-takes of the classic rock mockumentary, Spinal Tap which kept the band chuckling and primed to perform the demanding material. “Don brought a sort of playfulness, wizardry and counter-cultural acumen,” Julia states. They were so exhilarated that many tracks were recorded in one take.
That gleeful energy transmuted into what may be the Bush Tetras’ most accomplished work, with jangling, haunting rhythms underpinning lyrics that use dark humor to challenge the depths of dislocation so many of us continue to experience in our increasingly fractured world.
“I tend to write really sad lyrics, and we always have a dark side. The chemistry is aggressive when we get together,” Cynthia says wryly. “On Happy we rose out of the ashes. Laura had quit the band, we didn’t know what the future held, and we were just so happy to be playing together again. We wrote all the songs in the rehearsal studio, Old School style, Pat would have a riff, I’d put words to it, then we’d bring it to the band.”
Happy’s very varied tracks are all pervaded by the same spirit of the outsiders struggling to find their path that Dee describes as the spirit of punk’s earliest days. The record is both very funny and full of angst.
Explains guitarist Pat Place, “When we started in the 80s, we were pretty jammy on tracks like “Das Ah Riot.” Though it was relatable because it was danceable and funky, we were considered out there.” Dee agrees, “I was the most conventionally trained musician of the band so I would be the more traditional bottom under this weird top.” But the band was keen to experiment. “When it came to Happy, we were trying to write songs with structure and wanted to experiment with different sounds and types of songs,” explains Pat.
Thus the tender slow roll of “Slap,” which Cynthia wrote walking down Hudson Street. “Often you’re in your own head and it’s good to relate to people in a more meaningful way. Sometimes you need to be slapped out of it,” she explains. “If I appear too maudlin in the rearview mirror, Could you slap me real hard, wake me up…”
In the contemplative grind of “Nails,” says Cynthia, she and Pat devised “an anthem for the co-dependent woman.” They focus on daily minutiae to help the stress of trying to understand yourself, particularly in relation to other humans. “I rearrange my room, I think the change can make me happy….still I fill my head with catastrophes that never happen..”
As the Bush Tetras stretch frenetically out on the ominous chords of “Heart Attack” its feedback drones while Cynthia wonders, “Am I conscious of this heart attack?” The frenzied propulsion of “You Don’t Know Me,” screams alienation in its drilling attack guitars as she insists, “You can’t rescue me.” The same self-questioning permeates the mournful “Bucket of Blood” with its buzz-saw bass and, eerie jangling guitars. “I don’t know why I have to cry,” the singer wails. She recalls how she wrote the song, walking down the street alone. “I was upset about how you always try to hide being upset. You don’t want people to know. Finally when you’re alone, you can be slinky,” she laughs, quoting the lyrics. On “Ocean,” her voice quavers with intensity and the whole band seem to stare into an abyss of doubt.
Was it a premonition? In the seismic convulsions of the record industry of the late 1990s, poor little Happy and the freight of the Bush Tetras’ dreams it carried, were swallowed up as if by an earthquake.
Cynthia Sley says, “I loved that record. We were so disappointed it didn’t come out. At the time, we had been playing out a lot, which had really given us time to develop our arrangements. I love its playfulness.” “We gave up on putting it out,” sighs Pat.
The trauma of Happy‘s non-appearance caused the band to withdraw once again. Almost as a form of healing, they recorded an album for ROIR, called Very Very Happy, in 2007, as a warped tribute to the lost record. On it, they re-visited phases of their career, as if trying to make sense of their past, and find a way to the future.
They even re-recorded “Too Many Creeps.” The process led them to re-assess the beginning of the band, when instead of being scattered round the country, teaching art and poetry and raising children, they were at the very epicenter of an art movement and moment that will never be forgotten.
“It was a whole different generation of music. We went to see the Contortions (with whom Pat was playing,) DNA, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. We loved the freedom and wildness. It inspired me. It was all one big groovy scene, really fun, we were a community,” says Cynthia.
Youthful pretty boy Dee Pop was the band’s native New Yorker, and like The Ramones – and later, Run DMC – he hails from Queens. He wasn’t too macho to hang with the hip girls.“They became like my sisters,” he recalls. All the others were drawn magnetically to New York, the epicenter of creative cool in America at the time. With Andy Warhol still around as the silver-haired Godfather, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring were the anointed next generation. The roll-call of fascinating bands is legend; and among them, the Bush Tetras were lauded. In fact, it is hard to imagine a band like the Bush Tetras forming any earlier in history, partly because of their unusual line-up, which projected a new image of womanhood – spiky, uncompromising, androgynous, sarcastic, tough and too clever by half.
Like so many of their peers, most of the Bush Tetras were drawn to New York from elsewhere. Friends Cynthia and Laura both dropped out of Art School in Cleveland to discover the city and themselves. “I came to New York to have a career in art. I landed in the East Village and Soho when there was a lot of really cool music,” explains Pat, “I came to New York from Chicago in 1975 because I was interested in performance and conceptual art. Basically, I crossed over from art when I met James Chance and joined the Contortions.”
After the Contortions split, the Bush Tetras formed swiftly and organically, as everyone was already friends and jamming partners.
“Those were the days!” Pat laughs. “It couldn’t happen now. When we started in 1979, things were very different. Living on the Lower East Side you could have a little job and play music the rest of the time.”
The first verse of the song that came to define them, “Too Many Creeps,” was written by Pat in the ticket booth at the Bleecker St. Theatre, where she and Laura were working, inspired by annoying customers.
“We were pretty sassy and people were scared of us. We were completely attacked and had such a hard time,” Cynthia says. “With our short haircuts, people couldn’t figure out if we were boys or girls.”
Snotty, bratty, and undeniably cool, the track had an irresistible Bad Girls attitude. They got to record it when they scored a deal with indie label 99 Records, run by Ed Bahlman and his wife Gina, out of a basement record-cum-clothing store at 99 Bleecker Street. Thus the Bush Tetras became part of a community that included bands like ESG and Glenn Branca (and this writer).
In February 1980, Laura, Pat, Cynthia and Dee opened up for 8 Eyed Spy at Tier 3 – then just days later they were opening for the Feelies and DNA at a far larger venue, Irving Plaza. Cynthia was so shocked she forgot to turn her guitar volume up, but Pat played so forcefully that no-one noticed.
“It was a magical time,” says Dee, “not just for bands but in literature and movies, with people like Jim Jarmusch, Beth and Scott B. We played a lot at CBGB’s, Max’s Kansas City, Tier 3, Peppermint Lounge, the Mudd Club, Danceteria – we were really in the middle of that moment.”
There, the Bush Tetras were acclaimed as the most progressive of the New York post-punk bands. Their experimental, edgy, confrontational approach, fitted perfectly with British bands like the Gang of Four – particularly as it was flavored with their adored NY funk. After punk’s primal thrash, post-punks were keen to explore rhythmic complexities.
But given the very exhausting circumstances of life in the post-punk fast lane, perhaps the outcome was inevitable.
Bass player Laura Kennedy quit first, in 1982, replaced by Bobby Albertson. Dee Pop left the following year, his sticks taken over by Don Christensen. But as Sley says, “It was hard to keep stirring the pot.”
“We’d been on the road for three years and we were all burned out,” says Pat. “There were some drugs involved. That was what was going on. Drugs were flowing, part of the whole deal. I just collapsed in the end.”
Like the frenzied, fabulous scene from which they came, the Bush Tetras imploded under the strains of underground stardom.
So when the last remnants of the band disintegrated officially in 1983 it seemed to be final. Pat and Laura concentrated on art again. Cynthia taught poetry. Dee had bands.
But the Bush Tetras would only burrow deeper underground, hibernate, and then re-emerge. They could not, stay buried. The reunions began. “For some reason we would know it was the right moment,” says Pat. “We played together again in the late 1980s and after that we would reunite every couple of years, but it didn’t really click again till the mid-1990s.” In the meantime, the musicians still often played together, even without the name Bush Tetras. Pat and Julia played with Adele Bertei in a girls’ hardcore rock band called Alice.
When Pat felt ready to make music again in the mid-1990s she was soon in demand by several bands. She found herself opening for the band Hole while playing with poetess Maggie Estep. Intrigued by Love’s songwriting, Pat determined to think more formally when it came to composition; and the rest of the band were in sync with her. It was in that spirit, that they recorded first “Beauty Lies,” in 1995, after which Laura Kennedy left the band again; and then Happy, with bassplayer Julia Murphy. As she had been playing with Pat in six different, bands since returning to America after a thrilling stint in Punk London, Murphy was a perfect fit.
“I became expert at embodying Laura,” she jokes. “Playing her lines in the early songs conjures the spirit of those times in a shamanistic way, the energy of the street and that moment, my coming of age.”
Murphy was to play a crucial role in the new sound of Happy. Which is where we came in.
So the Bush Tetras are back – not that they ever succeeded in really going away. They’re playing shows, going on the road, re-assessing themselves in the light of the long-lost Happy, and preparing to negotiate their future.
“It’s easy for us to get back together,” Dee concludes, “because we’ve always shared everything equally. We’ve all equally contributed to everything. There’s never any animosity and it is easy for us to be in the same room.”
After almost a quarter century together, even though it’s been on and off, that is a real testament to the spirit of the Bush Tetras, an individual and enduring band. They’re actually Happy now.